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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 6199

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

He who first gave to Martinique its poetical name, Le Pays des Revenants, thought of his wonderful island only as "The Country of Comers-back," where Nature's unspeakable spell bewitches wandering souls like the caress of a Circe,-never as the Land of Ghosts. Yet either translation of the name holds equal truth: a land of ghosts it is, this marvellous Martinique! Almost every plantation has its familiar spirits,-its phantoms: some may be unknown beyond the particular district in which fancy first gave them being;-but some belong to popular song and story,-to the imaginative life of the whole people. Almost every promontory and peak, every village and valley along the coast, has its special folk-lore, its particular tradition. The legend of Thomasseau of Perinnelle, whose body was taken out of the coffin and carried away by the devil through a certain window of the plantation-house, which cannot be closed up by human power;-the Demarche legend of the spectral horseman who rides up the hill on bright hot days to seek a friend buried more than a hundred years ago;-the legend of the Habitation Dillon, whose proprietor was one night mysteriously summoned from a banquet to disappear forever;-the legend of l'Abbé Piot, who cursed the sea with the curse of perpetual unrest;-the legend of Aimeé Derivry of Robert, captured by Barbary pirates, and sold to become a Sultana-Validé-(she never existed, though you can find an alleged portrait in M. Sidney Daney's history of Martinique): these and many similar tales might be told to you even on a journey from St. Pierre to Fort-de-France, or from Lamentin to La Trinité, according as a rising of some peak into view, or the sudden opening of an anse before the vessel's approach, recalls them to a creole companion.

And new legends are even now being made; for in this remote colony, to which white immigration has long ceased,-a country so mountainous that people are born (and buried) in the same valley without ever seeing towns but a few hours' journey beyond their native hills, and that distinct racial types are forming within three leagues of each other,-the memory of an event or of a name which has had influence enough to send one echo through all the forty-nine miles of peaks and craters is apt to create legend within a single generation. Nowhere in the world, perhaps, is popular imagination more oddly naive and superstitious; nowhere are facts more readily exaggerated or distorted into unrecognizability; and the forms of any legend thus originated become furthermore specialized in each separate locality where it obtains a habitat. On tracing back such a legend or tradition to its primal source, one feels amazed at the variety of the metamorphoses which the simplest fact may rapidly assume in the childish fancy of this people.

I was first incited to make an effort in this direction by hearing the remarkable story of "Missié Bon." No legendary expression is more wide-spread throughout the country than temps coudvent Missié Bon (in the time of the big wind of Monsieur Bon). Whenever a hurricane threatens, y

ou will hear colored folks expressing the hope that it may not be like the coudvent Missié Bon. And some years ago, in all the creole police-courts, old colored witnesses who could not tell their age would invariably try to give the magistrate some idea of it by referring to the never-to-be-forgotten temps coudvent Missié Bon.

... "Temps coudvent Missié Bon, moin té ka tété encò" (I was a child at the breast in the time of the big wind of Missié Bon); or "Temps coudvent Missié Bon, moin té toutt piti manmaill,-moin ka souvini y pouend caiie manman moin pòté allé." (I was a very, very little child in the time of the big wind of Missié Bon,-but I remember it blew mamma's cabin away.) The magistrates of those days knew the exact date of the coudvent.

But all could learn about Missié Bon among the country-folk was this: Missié Bon used to be a great slave-owner and a cruel master. He was a very wicked man. And he treated his slaves so terribly that at last the Good-God (Bon-Dié) one day sent a great wind which blew away Missié Bon and Missié Bon's house and everybody in it, so that nothing was ever heard of them again.

It was not without considerable research that I suceeded at last in finding some one able to give me the true facts in the case of Monsieur Bon. My informant was a charming old gentleman, who represents a New York company in the city of St. Pierre, and who takes more interest in the history of his native island than creoles usually do. He laughed at the legend I had found, but informed me that I could trace it, with slight variations, through nearly every canton of Martinique.

"And now" he continued "I can tell you the real history of 'Missié Bon'-for he was an old friend of my grandfather; and my grandfather related it to me.

"It may have been in 1809-I can give you the exact date by reference to some old papers if necessary-Monsieur Bon was Collector of Customs at St. Pierre: and my grandfather was doing business in the Grande Rue. A certain captain, whose vessel had been consigned to my grandfather, invited him and the collector to breakfast in his cabin. My grandfather was so busy he could not accept the invitation;-but Monsieur Bon went with the captain on board the bark."

... "It was a morning like this; the sea was just as blue and the sky as clear. All of a sudden, while they were at breakfast, the sea began to break heavily without a wind, and clouds came up, with every sign of a hurricane. The captain was obliged to sacrifice his anchor; there was no time to land his guest: he hoisted a little jib and top-gallant, and made for open water, taking Monsieur Bon with him. Then the hurricane came; and from that day to this nothing has ever been heard of the bark nor of the captain nor of Monsieur Bon." [6]

"But did Monsieur Bon ever do anything to deserve the reputation he has left among the people?" I asked.

"Ah! le pauvre vieux corps!... A kind old soul who never uttered a harsh word to human being;-timid,-good-natured,-old-fashioned even for those old-fashioned days.... Never had a slave in his life!"

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